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Mass. firefighters hail court battle against ‘forever’ chemicals in gear

Fall River firefighters smash a coiled up fire hose with sledgehammers to work up a sweat.
Kit Noble
Fall River firefighters spent a day training on Nantucket in March 2022. Scientists are now studying whether toxic chemicals known as PFAS are working their way from firefighters’ gear into their bodies.

Local firefighters say they’re sick of toxic PFAS chemicals being used in their protective gear and are proud their union is filing a lawsuit to rid their equipment of the so-called “forever chemicals.”

The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) is suing the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a Quincy-based group that guides national standards for firefighters’ protective gear, alleging that the NFPA is colluding with gear manufacturers and profiting from the standards that effectively require PFAS to be included in firefighters’ protective suits.

PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are a group of some 14,000 chemicals used in firefighter gear and many consumer products for their oil-, water-, and stain-resistant properties. High levels of exposure have been linked to health problems like cancer, fertility issues, liver damage, thyroid disease, and immune system disorders, among others.

“I’ve lost several members to cancer,” said Jason Burns, a Fall River firefighter and district vice president of the Massachusetts Firefighters Union. “You start thinking about them, their families, their children. So … I’m proud that our organization [the IAFF] is standing beside our membership and saying, ‘Whatever it takes, we're going to keep you safe.’”

Firefighters say they’re regularly exposed to carcinogens in their line of work, but they shouldn’t have to be exposed unnecessarily. According to research by the Centers for Disease Control, firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer than the general U.S. population and a 14 percent higher chance of dying from those cancers.

“We are exposing ourselves to carcinogens needlessly day-in and day-out because of the standard that was set by the NFPA, who was so heavily influenced by the industry that stands to profit off the standard. And that's wrong,” said Edward Kelly, general president of the IAFF, speaking outside the Norfolk County Superior Court in Dedham last week.

The lawsuit comes about 18 months after the NFPA voted to continue requiring the middle “moisture barrier” in fire protection gear to pass a controversial test that effectively requires the use of textiles containing the cancer-causing chemicals.

“There's relationships within the NFPA, within these committees and these companies, manufacturers, whatever,” Burns said. “And I think that’s going to be on our [legal] team to prove. I'm not saying it's easy, but it's the right thing to do, and I'm proud that we're taking that fight on.”

A representative for the National Fire Protection Association vehemently denied the claims.

“The IAFF’s recent public comments about the lawsuit falsely portray NFPA, our standards development process, and the role the IAFF itself plays in that process,” wrote Lorraine Carli, vice president of Outreach and Advocacy at NFPA, in a statement. “We won’t allow our organization, our people, or our valued volunteers to be disparaged or our long-standing process to be politicized by a meritless lawsuit.”

The NFPA’s voluntary standards are developed through committees that include volunteer representation from manufacturers, the fire service, testing labs, experts and others.

“NFPA does not have, nor have we ever had, any special agreements or relationships with any company or organization involved in our standards development process,” Carli wrote. “The IAFF’s suggestion that any group exerts undue influence over NFPA’s process is false and defamatory.”

In addition, she said, PFAS use is not explicitly required.

“The NFPA protective gear standard does not specify or require the use of any particular materials, chemicals or treatments for that gear,” she said. “It does require a moisture barrier test to ensure the gear will protect the wearer. The manufacturer decides how to comply with that test.”

The IAFF Is seeking a jury trial and monetary damages, which are likely to exceed $50,000.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.